Oct 2015
Bacteria-fighting plastic could be the future of dentistry
3D-printed teeth
This dental replica was made using a 3D printer. Researchers are now working on ways to make 3D-printed teeth resistant to bacteria. Photograph: Stratasys

The latest 3D printing innovation could change the way you think about your visit to the dentist. That’s because Dutch researchers at the University of Groningen are working on the creation of a 3D-printed tooth made of an antimicrobial plastic that kills the bacteria responsible for tooth decay on contact.
Smile! Meet the 3D printer churning out teeth, nerves and gums for dentists
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Imagine teeth that remain white and pristine over time, without all the accumulation of bacteria that cause dental problems. While the thought of having a 3D-printed tooth inside your mouth might not sound so great, is it really any worse than dealing with the constant toothache from a decaying tooth?

For the Dutch researchers, the key step in developing the bacteria-fighting tooth was being able to find the right material to put inside the 3D printer. In this case, the researchers embedded antimicrobial quaternary ammonium salts inside existing dental resin polymers. Once this mix is put into a 3D printer, it can be hardened with ultraviolet light and used to print out 3D replacement teeth.

To test the bacteria-fighting tooth in a lab environment, the researchers coated the material with human saliva and exposed it to the bacterium that causes tooth decay. The anti-bacterial tooth killed more than 99% of all bacteria and showed no signs of being harmful to human cells.

However, there is still a long way to go before this 3D-printing scenario becomes a reality. The Dutch 3D-printing innovation, for example, is still not ready for clinical trials and has not yet been tested inside a human mouth. Moreover, it’s not clear how the tooth might react to brushing and the application of toothpaste.

Despite these obstacles, Andreas Herrmann of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands suggests that, “It’s a medical product with a foreseeable application in the near future, much less time than developing a new drug.”

There’s room for optimism because the role of 3D printing within the field of dentistry shows signs of taking off. In early March, 3D printing company Stratasys unveiled a high-end dental 3D printer, called the Objet260 Dental Selection, capable of printing out realistic teeth, gums and nerves in order to create lifelike models for dental specialists. The printer uses the company’s PolyJet dental materials, promising “gum-like softness and colour”, a “range of natural tooth shades” and even nerve canals for dental models so realistic that practitioners can use them to model complicated dental procedures.

Joseph DeSimone of the 3D printing company Carbon3D speaks on the possiblity of while-you-wait tooth printing.
Those are just dental models and not intended for clinical trials. However, it’s hard to deny the growing role of 3D printers in medicine and dentistry. Using 3D printers, there are ongoing attempts to “bio-print” human bone, skin, tissue and even organs (think kidneys and livers). According to research firm IDTechEx, the dental and medical market for 3D printers could grow in size to $867m by 2025.
The bigger (albeit highly futuristic) context is that 3D printers are leading to what can only be called a “replacement parts for humans” model. Just as cars have parts that need to be replaced after a certain number of miles, humans also have parts that need to be replaced after a certain number of years. That’s especially true as people live longer than ever before. Think of 3D-printed teeth as just small replacement parts that can be customised for your mouth.

At the March 2015 TED conference in Vancouver, there was even a suggestion that the ability to 3D-print replacement teeth within minutes – while you wait in the dentist chair – might be soon possible. Joseph DeSimone, the chief executive of the 3D printing company Carbon3D and a professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggested in his TED talk it might be possible to 3D-print a tooth in less than 10 minutes. He refers to this innovation as “point-of-sale manufacturing” for dentists.

That’s the promise, in many ways, of an exponential digital technology such as 3D printing. As the technology improves, it’s possible to see 10 times, even 100 times, improvements in speed. What once took hours or more, can now be accomplished within the space of a few minutes. That increase of speed, coupled with the promise of being able to make perfectly fitted teeth that have been customised for each person’s mouth, makes it almost a certainty that you might one day see a 3D printer next to all the other tools and instruments in your dentist’s office.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post


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